MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Autumn on horseback

For a treat, enjoy the fall scenery on a guided trail ride.

A trail ride in Fort Ridgely State Park.

© Beth Gauper

Along the Minnesota River Valley, riders cut between corn fields near Fort Ridgely State Park.

In fall, we all love to get out and see the colors on a good tramp through the woods.

But why not let a horse do the walking?

I don’t ride much, but when I do, it’s always autumn. Crisp air and colorful forests call for a trail ride, and the view is always better on a horse.

I’ve ridden through the golden woods of northwest Wisconsin, through Pillsbury and Foothills state forests in Minnesota lakes country and in the ravines of the Minnesota River Valley.

And one September, I let a palomino named Pal take me through the canyons of South Dakota.

Most people think South Dakota is flat. But its northeastern corner is part of the Prairie Coteau, the uplifted floor of an ancient sea. During the last Ice Age, it split the advancing glacier, which dumped rubble on its flanks that created coulees and lakes.

The striking landscape was a surprise to me, and so was Canyon Ranch near Veblen, which offers two-hour trail rides for a bargain price of $25.

“We’re not fancy here,’’ said guide Dawn Gaukler. “We’re just hillbillies who have a great area.’’

Her trail rides could be billed as history tours, because this part of South Dakota was frequented by indigenous tribes, French fur traders from nearby Lake Traverse and frontier soldiers.

From the ranch, we rode into Knights Canyon, where Gaukler said 200 people once lived, Indian and white, some in dugouts.

It includes ancient burial mounds and still is a sacred place to the local Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota; in the late '80s, the ranch’s campground was used for a sun dance ceremony. She pointed to a red prayer parcel hanging in a tree.

“We’ve never opened it; we don’t bother their stuff,’’ she said. “It’s to bless the area.’’

We continued up the walls of a canyon, much like a Midwestern coulee, with “fingers’’ created by elongated piles of glacial debris. 

Riding horses around Pine River, Minn.

© Beth Gauper

Friends go on a trail ride near Pine River, in the Brainerd Lakes area.

To the west, we could see the prairie rolling into the horizon, unbroken. But we headed east and upward, crossing streams and winding through hardwood forests.

It was only mid-September, so the aspen, maple and oak had yet to turn. But the sumac was a brilliant red, and clumps of goldenrod covered the boulder-strewn hillsides.

We rode quietly, taking in the views. Once, Gaukler said, many local families kept horses, but no longer.

“Most of them have ATVs now,’’ she said. “You just turn a key, and you don’t have to feed them or take care of them.’’

Another fall, my husband and I went riding near Brainerd, Minn., with Outback Stables. It was just the two of us with an enthusiastic young guide named Liz, who kept up a running narration on the trails, the behavior of the local deer and the personalities of our horses.

My horse, Pedro, had worked in a rodeo, yet was skittish whenever we had to go through puddles.

“When we first saw him, he was carrying a flag around as if he wasn’t afraid of anything, so it’s surprising that he’s afraid of deer and water,’’ she said. Horses’ eyes can’t gauge depth, she said, so many are afraid of water, not knowing how deep it is.

After a while, after neither of us had fallen off, she decided we could increase the pace.

“Wanna trot? That’s fun,’’ she said.

So we trotted, then cantered through the stable’s property and into Pillsbury State Forest, cooled by a light breeze. It was a blast.

Sometimes the horses wanted to stop to eat plants, and sometimes they tried to edge around each other, but they responded to a little tug on the reins.

“It’s funny; after a while you learn to trust your animal,’’ said Torsten, who was on a horse for the first time.

Not far to the north, two girlfriends and I went riding with Pine River Riding Stable, a 240-acre ranch on the Pine River. My friend Marie was a little worried about handling the big steeds, but guide Patrick Wolfe reassured her.

"They do know if you haven't had a lot of experience, and they're not going to take advantage," he said. "They're going to take it nice and easy."

Horseback riding in northwest Wisconsin.

© Beth Gauper

A mid-October trail ride winds through the forest east of Cable, Wis.

It was early October, but already the leaf colors had segued into russet and gold, and the paths in Foothills State Forest were covered with fallen leaves.

"This makes you feel like you're walking the yellow brick road," said Bonnie, our 16-year-old guide.

We rode through a meadow, into the woods and then, to Marie's consternation, we crossed the river — and not on a bridge. But we felt safe on our big mounts — Judy's horse, Hot Shot, a Paint-Shire cross, was more than 18 hands high, or 6 feet.

"You don't have any idea you can fall off that horse, because it's like sitting on a table," she said.

My horse, Apine, was the boss, however, and I ended up leading our little pack.

"She's the mayor," Bonnie said. "She's kind of the head honcho of the herd."

By the time we got back, Marie had lost her fear of horses.

"Thanks for forcing me," she said.

Trip Tips: Horseback trail rides

Don’t worry if you’re not an expert. Guides will show you the basics of handling horses, but most horses are very well trained. Helmets are available.

Wear long pants, and you may want to wear padded bike shorts underneath to reduce soreness after the ride. It's always best to reserve in advance.

Riders on horseback in South Dakota's Prairie Coteau.

© Beth Gauper

In northeast South Dakota, riders climb into the Prairie Coteau from Canyon Ranch.

Canyon Ranch near Veblen, S.D. This ranch in northeast South Dakota, about half an hour from Wheaton, Minn., offers two-hour trail rides from May through the third weekend of October. Call owner Karen Borgen at 605-738-2480.

Pine River Riding Stable near Pine River, Minn. It’s four miles west of the town of Pine River, between Brainerd and Walker. It also offers hourlong, 1½- or 2-hour sunset rides, with a cookout in the middle, and a 1½-hour sunrise breakfast ride.

The ranch also has a very nice petting zoo, with billy goats, donkeys, geese, potbellied pigs, sheep and emus. Guests can spend as much time there as they like. Call 218-587-5807 days and 218-587-4844 evenings.

Outback Trail Rides near Brainerd, Minn. It's 10 miles west of Brainerd, in Pillsbury State Forest. Rides are one hour, 1½ hours and two hours. 218-746-3990.

Fort Ridgely Equestrian Center near Fairfax, Minn. This friendly stables in the Minnesota River Valley, two hours west of the Twin Cities, offers trail rides through Fort Ridgely State Park. Rides are one hour, two hours or three hours. There's a $5 discount if you wear a helmet.

It makes a fun and inexpensive weekend to stay at the chalet or farmhouse in the park, which includes a very scenic nine-hole golf course. For more, see Ponies and putters.

More stables

Most vacation areas have stables that offer trail rides. Check Travel Wisconsin's Horseback Riding Directory, Explore Minnesota's list of horseback trail rides and Pure Michigan's directory of Horse Stables and Riding Trails.

Last updated on October 7, 2015